6 South American adventures waiting in the wings


With 2021 approaching — and the possibilities for safe travel promising to return — even now you can begin considering the possibilities for adventure travel in South America. Why not?

Of course “adventure” means a little something different for each traveler. Those with untamed spirits can find adventure in everything from literally swimming with sharks to trying an adrenaline-pumping sport for the first time.

With rugged terrain, uncharted lands, and plenty of natural beauty, South America offers an array of exciting destinations for adventure travel. What we present here are just a half-dozen of some of our best adventure activities well worth experiencing while exploring this amazing continent.

1. Trekking to Colombia’s “Lost City”

When the first Spanish settlers set up base on Colombia’s northern coast, they aimed to find the untold riches of the legendary Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”) – located deep in the jungle on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

While the site no longer gleams with gold, you’ll no doubt leave the destination with a reservoir of incredible memories. Containing some 170 stone terraces that were once the foundations for 9th-century Tayrona houses, the ruins here are as impressive as they are remote. Those wishing to set eyes on this archaeological gem can do so by embarking on a five-day trek that will bring you into contact with the indigenous Tayrona culture and have you delighting in this natural out-of-the-way site. Channel your inner Indiana Jones as you cross rickety bridges, climb endless stone steps, and wade through streams to reach the incredible age-old site, best visited during the peak season between December and March.

2. Whale watching on Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula

Rarely do whales make it quite so easy to get up close and personal with them as in the waters of Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula. This area’s unique geography has made it a haven for these behemoths, the most outstanding being Southern right whales, which reach lengths of up to 45 feet and tip the scale at between 40 and 45 tons.

These whales glide along just meters from the shoreline, while orcas sometimes beach themselves when preying on sea lions. Every year, between June and December, hundreds of these Southern right whales make their way to this remote Patagonian peninsula, which is now a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site thanks to the enormous visitors. While the nearby city of Puerto Madryn is the base for most two-legged travelers visiting the area, the fishing village of Puerto Piramides is the actual starting point for heading out to sea for at least a couple days of captivating whale watching.

3. Riding Bolivia’s “Death Road”

It’s not called “Death Road” for nothing. This infamous stretch of winding road outside of the Bolivian capital of La Paz is notorious for its hairpin bends bounded by 12,000-foot-high cliffs, with few guide rails offering protection.

Formerly hailed as the most dangerous road in the world, this gravel-covered tract once claimed the lives of around 200 people each year. Since an alternative route was built, commercial traffic on the “Death Road” has been reduced; however, the roadway has now captured the attention of not only curious drivers, but also thrill-seeking mountain bikers yearning to experience stunning Bolivian landscapes in an exhilarating, hair-raising way. Strap on your helmet and get set for a thrilling 41-mile ride that descends 3,500 meters (a more than 2-mile drop), cutting and curving through snowy mountaintops, past cascading waterfalls, and between verdant scenery even before reaching the hair-raising stint along the Yungas Road (aka “Death Road”). Coasting down this spectacular cycling route, you’ll feel the thrill of navigating its steep paths and avoiding tumultuous knife-edge drops, including the famous “Death Curve,” which will have you wheeling past gorgeous waterfalls on the ultimate in fate-tempting adventure.

4. Volcano-biking in Ecuador

While the famed Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, this country has even more to offer. As you pass through the mainland en route to the nation’s islands, why not experience “Volcano Avenue”? – two parallel mountain ranges that are home to eight of the country’s ten highest peaks. Located just outside of Quito, theses Andean summits make for exhilarating day trips. Each is a thrilling way to take in the impressive scenery of imposing volcanoes and almost mystical cloud forests.

The journey by 4×4 from the capital city takes you to any of these volcanoes for sublime views of the outstretched countryside. Possibly even reaching the rim of the volcano’s crater, you’ll be all geared up for some downhill cycling, rewarded with sweeping vistas and snow-capped mountains beyond. In all directions, the vast expanses of open Andean highlands unfold before you, while above you might spot condors soaring majestically. An exhilarating ride will likely take you down to a sleepy village, where you’ll fuel up on a traditional Andean lunch and revel in the enchanting culture and surroundings. Then too, with its mild year-round climate, Ecuador is also an excellent place for caving, rafting, and hiking. Consider adding at least one of these to your Galapagos adventure!

5. Sandboarding in Chile’s Atacama Desert

The perfect mix of sand, sun and adrenaline makes sandboarding an up-and-coming adventure activity. One of the perfect places for high-speed descents down arid dunes of varying shapes and sizes is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

In this otherworldly region — the world’s driest desert — you’ll experience the thrill and physical challenge of sandboarding down massive 300-foot-high dunes for a wild, adrenaline-pumping ride. In the Atacama’s “Mars Valley” or “Death Valley,” have a blast, enjoy the views, and experience the desert like never before. Then, end the day watching the sun set over the Valle de la Luna “(Moon Valley”) with a cold Pisco sour in hand.

6. Diving with sharks (safely) in the Galapagos Islands

Finding yourself surrounded by hundreds of benign hammerhead shark is one of the earth’s greatest natural adventures. It’s perfectly possible to experience this wonder of nature in the Galapagos Islands, where the waters off Darwin Island and Wolf Island are two of the best diving spots in the world for encounters with these majestic marine animals.

Not an experience for the faint of heart, the area’s largest population of hammerhead sharks can be witnessed in the summer months, with June often seeing large schools. But it doesn’t stop here; other aquatic life you can expect to experience include everything from white-tipped reef shark and sea lions, to tiny Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas, and flightless cormorants, not to mention starfish, sea turtles, and countless species of brilliantly colored tropical fish.

Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.

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Comments (8)

  1. Stephen says:

    The last 6 months, without any travel, have given me time to think about my travel bucket list and where I really want to travel to. Probably over recent years, like many people who I know, I have frittered away money and time on short breaks to Europe. Lock-down has made me realise that the one place that I haven’t visited and should is South America. (Though I would also like to see Antarctica but that is moving into another league of expense, probably beyond my finances.)

    There are some amazing suggestions here. I’m not sure that my knees are up to sand boarding or a five day trek. I think that I would have to moderate the adventure for what my board would take.

    • Erick says:

      Yeah that’s usually one of the biggest obstacles for anybody who wants to travel more: money. However, I think with some careful planning and it should be feasible if you’re patient. Especially now — I’m looking forward to visiting South America as well. I don’t know anywhere in the world that has such a variety of things to do.

  2. Alex T says:

    I watched a little about Colombia on a documentary a few months ago. Admittedly I think it was covering some of the drug trade but it was showing the ‘other side’ of the south and the parts we often don’t see, like the nature, the jungles, just how interesting the places are to explore there. I wouldn’t mind going for the nature part of it, maybe some hiking and photography. I think I’d give the ‘Death Road’ a miss though. I’d definitely want more than the odd guard rail before driving up there, yikes!

    • Jen says:

      Yeah that road made me panic just by looking at a picture of it! I’m absolutely terrified of roads like that, it would be a nightmare for me. Walking it, maybe. But no way I’d ride on that road in a car.

  3. Mike Watkins says:

    After living such an enclosed and restricted life for so many months I’m really feeling the need for some adventure and travel. I’m not sure that I’m in any fit state to channel my inner Indiana Jones at the moment but a five day trek to The Lost City would certainly make up for all the claustrophobia of this year. I don’t think I’m ready for it quite yet. I’ll have to work on both my physical fitness and financial fitness to get me ready for that one.

  4. Josie says:

    What an awesome idea with checking out the Lost City. I’ve always found that so mysterious and alluring. Definitely something I’d love to do. I’d also like to try diving as I love sea life, though I’m not so sure about the sharks. At least it would be memorable and you’d have one hell of a story to share when you got home.

  5. Ben says:

    After reading this, it’s pretty clear that this is all just a taste of what South America has to offer. I could see myself living in Columbia. I have a client who moved there from the States, and I know he’s much happier. Last night, I had some really great Argentina wine … and I’m just as fascinated about Chile too. Plus, there’s Paraguay and Uruguay. These are just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. Man, I’m really looking forward to visiting South America. I met somebody last year, a former British marine, who was going down there to travel the continent before taking an English teacher job. Really inspiring.

  6. Tatiana Luna says:

    Thanks Alfonso, Great Galapagos info. Expert divers have Galapagos and Whale Sharks on the top of their list of must dives, however if you want to go to Galapagos and just do a few dives and other Eco adventures to flora and fauna on the enchanted Islands you will have to do day dives from either San Cristobol or Santa Cruz. Remember you cant fly the day of or next day after you dive so allow 24 hours decompression. We’re just opening our operations again post Covid this past week.

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